At a moment when the term “refugee” is everywhere, it might be useful to reexamine the resonances of the “exile,” a term which lacks the legal architecture that bolsters the refugee but that has powerful cultural resonances. This move might seem counterintuitive, as the refugee today is suffering from extreme precarity, whereas exile signals psychic and existential distress more than physical precarity. Literary studies has had a long love affair with the figure of the exile, however, and a surprisingly more truncated relationship to the term refugee. Exile is, furthermore, a status often attributed to paradigmatic figures in the field and thus is generative of a particular ethics of reading marked by historical engagement. Comparatists are drawn to understand exile through the figure of exile scholars whose impulse to compare and read transnationally comes directly from personal experience. Perhaps the most prominent is Erich Auerbach, who wrote Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature while in exile in Istanbul during the Second World War. Auerbach’s exile is seen as especially poignant because, so the story goes, in Istanbul he lacked access to a good library and had to work from memory to create his interpretive map of the western literary tradition– what Harry Levin, paying tribute both to Auerbach and to the condition of exile, called “his imaginary museum.” Kader Konuk has shaken us out of the mythopoeisis of this origin story with her important East West Mimesis, which more accurately captures the intellectual complexity of wartime Istanbul, but the figure of the exile as uprooted, detached, and uniquely positioned to synthesize remains paradigmatic in the field.
Edward Said theorized his own situation as a Palestinian in the United States academy in terms of the exilic experience, but he struck a decidedly more conflicted and pained tone, and this tone is more useful to us at this moment. A condition of permanent sorrow, exile for Said could not be overcome: “the achievements of exile,” he wrote, “are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.” Indeed, the term “refugee” haunts Said’s articulation of exile. In “Reflections on Exile,” he alludes to a widely held paradigm that links exile and emigration to the production of “Modern Western culture,” citing such figures as George Steiner, whose thesis about the “‘extraterritorial’” genre of twentieth-century literature is glossed by Said as a “literature by and about exiles, symbolizing the age of the refugee” (emphasis added). With this paradigm in mind, Said strikes a strong cautionary note, warning against allowing “exile to serve notions of humanism.” He continues: “at most the literature of exile objectifies an anguish and a predicament most people rarely experience firsthand; but to think of the exile as beneficially humanistic is to banalize its mutilations, the losses it inflicts on those who suffer them, the muteness with which it responds to any attempts to understand it as ‘good for us’” (emphasis added). Thus not only does Said think of refugee and exile together, but what he means in his reflection can help us tease out how refugee law shapes the narratives of refugee experience. Bridging the distance between the figure of the refugee in law and the real, historical persons who, once displaced, struggle to attain the status of this legal protection and more often than not illustrate its shortcomings and failure, is in some significant measure a function of storytelling. The exile, as understood by Said, works to challenge and frustrate the too easy passage of the real into story.
Said reframes the implicit muting that occurs when refugees become symbols in a project of exilic literature. For Said, muteness is a more intentional gesture: the exiled subject’s refusal to yield, a refusal to be available for easy appropriation. Said draws attention to a differently configured literature of the exile that brings to the fore realities that are difficult to assimilate, mute, resistant to our desire to coopt them “as ‘good for us,’” or morally (humanistically) uplifting. To be reminded that reading should recognize this muteness as pushing back against our tendency to consume “Good Reads” of war and the refugee experience is a timely caution. Although Said discusses exile in terms of the refugee experience, he stresses discontinuity and rupture. It is precisely this space between the exile and the refugee that we should widen a bit.
Acutely aware that refugees are voiceless (he tell us: “You must first set aside Joyce and Nabokov and think instead of the uncountable masses for whom the UN agencies have been created”), Said remains steadfastly focused on the real, the inexorable historical experiences that violently uproot people. If the passage from refugee to exile also maps onto a passage from voicelessness to a particularly (peculiarly) privileged form of utterance for some (e.g. the exiled intellectual), the literary text that captures the experience of dislocation must return us to the reality of violent rupture and irreparable loss in such a way that it conveys the distance between us and the events, and discomfits us rather than consoles us. There should be no “good for us” take away, or else this would be a failure of reading. If the ethics of reading parallel an ethics of recognition, it is incumbent upon us to do the work of contextualization that illuminates the particularity of what we read in the frame of its historical circumstance.
The discipline to which Said belonged, Comparative Literature, has a topic par excellence: to explore the seam that connects humanism and the specificity of historical circumstance. But historical contingency is also shaped by the law, and thus refugee law must be brought to bear on our literary readings, readings that insist they posit the authentic experiences of subjects in history. What does the law say and what kinds of narratives of refugee experience does it permit? Article 9 of the UDHR states that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” Here exile is configured as a condition of unlawful banishment, but the figure of the exile is not sketched in. The refugee has a more robust legal definition. Refugee law is grounded in article 14 of the UDHR, which guarantees to those who are persecuted the right to seek asylum in another country. It is, as Louis Henkin called it, “half a right—a right to leave, not a right to be received, to enjoy a haven or to resettle.” The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (amended in the 1967 Protocol that removed the temporal and geographic limitations in the Convention) is part of the Geneva Conventions, hence part of humanitarian law. It is here that we find the figure of the refugee sketched in, as the Convention delineates the criteria that must be met for a figure to count as a refugee before the law.
If we look at the refugee as a figure constructed through humanitarian law and peel back from this figure to the individual who has lived through the experience of violent displacement and flight, we might destabilize the passage from one identity to the other (from the historical figure to the figure the law designates a refugee) in productive ways, opening the potential to narrativize the experience differently, and most importantly to make rights violations more visible. Refugees are, as anthropologist Liisa Malkki tells us, “speechless emissaries.” Malkki links this condition of speechlessness explicitly to dehistoricization. Dehistoricization, Malkki argues further, depoliticizes the figure– the history being silenced is about political conflict now censored. Can literary treatments of the refugee figure offer a radical critique of the law’s construction of the refugee by complicating the assumptions governing the passage into this legal identity? Creating a depoliticized figure might be well-intentioned (it is presumably easier to protect a universalized figure of the refugee), but the speechlessness that goes with it sacrifices much of the potential explanatory power of the testimony that is lost. Refugee law is intended to protect, and it posits the figure of the refugee as the vulnerable person whose status as citizen has already been stripped away. The stateless person must be launched anew on a path to regain rights and citizenship, a path on which she most often comes to a standstill, thereby becoming subject to humanitarian governmentality. The narrative that frames refugee status is structured on a premise of a possible new beginning without memory, without history. This narrative has its pitfalls.
Refugee law straddles uncomfortably the divide between human rights law and humanitarian law. In 1995, Henkin called for the two to come together and he explained this in terms of linking the cause and effect dots on the line that map the history that leads to a refugee crisis: “it is time for the international community to respond to the plight of refugees not only from tired compassion but from political responsibility; to recognize that massive flows of refugees result from massive human rights violations.” The divide between these two legal discourses means that while humanitarian law determines who is a refugee, and human rights might shape the logic of the protections accorded to refugees and the steps possible to solve the problem of statelessness, the two discourses occupy different moments of the narrative’s temporal trajectory. Ideally, human rights law should also work backwards to examine the conditions that lead to the creation of the refugee in the first place. Whereas the boundary that distinguishes the projects of human rights and humanitarianism is muddled and a topic of intense discussion in the field at the moment, posed more narrowly as a problem of the law, human rights law and humanitarian law often function as distinct legal discourses, applied separately to different moments on the timeline.
The framing of the story of how a refugee is made is a story of humanitarian crisis. Once you have attained the status of refugee, your story becomes one of trying to shed or overcome that status, to accede back to your prior condition of citizen with rights. This aspirational narrative becomes visible through the rights outlined in the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The law delineates potential avenues out of the status of refugee without making it anyone’s obligation to bring this outcome about. The path to citizenship is delineated as if there exist entirely distinct trajectories: successful asylum, resettlement, or voluntary repatriation. But is this a path back to citizenship, a recovery of citizenship lost? Or is it a path forward to a new status, inflected strongly by the existential profile of exile? The problem of seeing the whole trajectory from a beginning point to some sort of resolution is acute. That is why the impulse to forget and treat refugees as if they have no past is strong. If the question before us is, therefore, “which framing can propel a more agentic figure into the historical realm?” then without doubt the human rights framing has more potential. Yet we seem intent on only seeing the humanitarian framing. And that leaves us in danger of reading for what is “good for us,” in Said’s words. It leaves us captured by narratives of humanitarian rescue from flight that celebrate rescue (and rescuers) prematurely before rescue is fully accomplished.
Thus we are compulsively drawn to the refugee as a figure in flight. The visual archive of this fleeing figure is immense and hugely compelling, in part because the effort is frequently heroic. The images, premised on the assumption that the flight itself is imperative, are the closest we come to confronting a self-directed action by subjects we see as already in the refugee condition. But to draw on Henkin again, it is good to be reminded that not all persons in flight from war or other circumstances will attain the status of refugees in the fullness of what the law holds as possible for them. By contrast, the stories and images from camps or other spaces of waiting speak less uniformly than the images of heroic flight. They frequently foreground the conditions in which refugees live, sometimes going to the extreme of evacuating the presence of persons altogether from what is visible. Perhaps one reason why camps may be frequently represented as spaces without people (as in aerial photographs of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya: rows upon rows of tents) could be a resistant impulse that doesn’t want to normalize the presence of persons in such spaces. Indeed the opposite representational strategy has been prominent in photos of Greek camps in Lesbos and elsewhere where human misery is front and center, and consequently an intense othering of the refugees has resulted, reversing the earlier openness of local citizens to the incoming flux. Yet another type of image, especially prominent in depictions of Palestinian refugee camps, might show a refugee tending a garden or living in a multigenerational home in a built camp. In these instances, we see refugees in a long-term settlement with a disturbing quotidian normalcy. Showing limbo or stalled time explicitly, however, might create an image or narrative that is resistant in yet a different way. It might resist us in the way that Said suggests when he makes the distinction between a literature of exile and the literature of the exile, of the particular subject, a literature which is stubborn, mute and resistant to our appropriation, yet also present in the particularly luminous way that literature can assert itself.
Humanitarian narratives, as I have argued elsewhere, are naturalist narratives that conform to a logic of necessity driven by environmental conditions of war and emergency. The story of flight is such a naturalist, humanitarian narrative especially because it tends to stall, short of its goal, thereby killing aspiration. The challenge is for us to reconfigure what we see, to respond to the muteness and resistance so that the figure in flight is not acting out a determined naturalist narrative, but instead reveals to us something about where she came from. As Ariella Azoulay notes about human rights photography, the framing of its images of refugees takes it as a given that statelessness is a status that has come to pass before the photograph is taken. She suggests that we see such images, rather, as one frame in a sequence of actions creating the condition of statelessness via multiple violations of human rights. Human rights photographs presume to show us the image of victims as opposed to the image of the violation where a subject with rights is still visible. The case of the refugee is peculiar precisely because it is posited as a figure already out of the norm—a figure marked by deracination and erasure of identity. Narrating meticulously the violations themselves, events we will “never be part of,” to echo Said once more, and retrieving from them the voices of the rights-bearing subjects whose rights have been violated, would mean putting the emphasis on history and allowing literature to contribute to our understanding of history.
For this effort it is useful to recall Said’s allusion to the muteness of the text, its resistance to sentimentalizing or moral self-congratulation. This is what humanitarianism fails to guard against when it participates in the production of the “speechless” refugee. As a closing gesture, let us turn to Hannah Arendt and her discomfort with the term. Speaking as “we refugees,” Arendt begins her essay by expressing the desire of her Jewish community to distance itself from this identity, the identity of those who “arrive in a new country without means and need to be helped by Refugee Committees.” But this denial and the false optimism of the immigrant story that replaces it, she tells us emphatically, are also undesirable as they mask the devastation of all that was lost: home, careers, language, relatives. Admitting that she speaks of “unpopular facts,” of the despair that hovers over the Jewish refugee survivors of the Holocaust, Arendt lays bare the ways in which the label refugee and the identity it brings with it feel dangerous for survival. However painful the memories, amnesia is not the answer either.